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Agave americana R01.jpg
Agave americana
Scientific classification Red Pencil Icon.png
Kingdom: Plantae
Clade: Angiosperms
Clade: Monocots
Order: Asparagales
Family: Asparagaceae
Subfamily: Agavoideae

See text. See also full listing.

Agave ( /əˈɡɑːvi/ , UK also /əˈɡvi/ , [1] Anglo-Hispanic: /əˈɡɑːv/ ) [2] is a genus of monocots native to the hot and arid regions of Mexico and the Southwestern United States. Some Agave species are also native to tropical areas of South America. The genus Agave (from the Ancient Greek αγαυή, agauê) [3] is primarily known for its succulent and xerophytic species that typically form large rosettes of strong, fleshy leaves. [4] Plants in this genus may be considered perennial, because they require several to many years to mature and flower. [5] [ page needed ] [6] However, most Agave species are more accurately described as monocarpic rosettes or multiannuals, since each individual rosette flowers only once and then dies (see semelparity); a small number of Agave species are polycarpic. [5] [ page needed ] [6]

A genus is a taxonomic rank used in the biological classification of living and fossil organisms, as well as viruses, in biology. In the hierarchy of biological classification, genus comes above species and below family. In binomial nomenclature, the genus name forms the first part of the binomial species name for each species within the genus.

Arid severe lack of available water

A region is arid when it is characterized by a severe lack of available water, to the extent of hindering or preventing the growth and development of plant and animal life. Environments subject to arid climates tend to lack vegetation and are called xeric or desertic. Most "arid" climates straddle the Equator; these places include parts of Africa, South America, Central America, and Australia.

Mexico Country in the southern portion of North America

Mexico, officially the United Mexican States, is a country in the southern portion of North America. It is bordered to the north by the United States; to the south and west by the Pacific Ocean; to the southeast by Guatemala, Belize, and the Caribbean Sea; and to the east by the Gulf of Mexico. Covering almost 2,000,000 square kilometres (770,000 sq mi), the nation is the fifth largest country in the Americas by total area and the 13th largest independent state in the world. With an estimated population of over 120 million people, the country is the eleventh most populous state and the most populous Spanish-speaking state in the world, while being the second most populous nation in Latin America after Brazil. Mexico is a federation comprising 31 states and Mexico City, a special federal entity that is also the capital city and its most populous city. Other metropolises in the state include Guadalajara, Monterrey, Puebla, Toluca, Tijuana and León.


Along with plants from the closely related genera Yucca , Hesperoyucca , and Hesperaloe, various Agave species are popular ornamental plants in hot/dry climates, as they require very little supplemental water to survive. [6] Most Agave species grow very slowly. [4] Some Agave species are known by the common name "century plant". [7]

<i>Yucca</i> A genus of flowering plants belonging to the agave and Joshua tree subfamily

Yucca is a genus of perennial shrubs and trees in the family Asparagaceae, subfamily Agavoideae. Its 40–50 species are notable for their rosettes of evergreen, tough, sword-shaped leaves and large terminal panicles of white or whitish flowers. They are native to the hot and dry (arid) parts of the Americas and the Caribbean.

<i>Hesperoyucca</i> genus of plants

Hesperoyucca is a small genus of two recognized species of flowering plants closely related to, and recently split from, Yucca, which is in the century plant subfamily within the asparagus family.

<i>Hesperaloe</i> A genus of flowering plants belonging to the agave, yucca, and Joshua tree subfamily

Hesperaloe is a genus of flowering plants in the family Asparagaceae, subfamily Agavoideae. It contains perennial yucca-like plants with long, narrow leaves produced in a basal rosette and flowers borne on long panicles or racemes. The species are native to the arid parts of Texas in the United States and Mexico and are sometimes cultivated as xerophytic ornamental plants.


The large flower spike of Agave chiapensis, San Francisco Botanical Garden Agave chiapensis whole.jpg
The large flower spike of Agave chiapensis , San Francisco Botanical Garden

The succulent leaves of most Agave species have sharp marginal teeth, an extremely sharp terminal spine, and are very fibrous inside. [6] The stout stem is usually extremely short, which may make the plant appear as though it is stemless.

In plant morphology, thorns, spines, and prickles, and in general spinose structures, are hard, rigid extensions or modifications of leaves, roots, stems or buds with sharp, stiff ends, and generally serve the same function: physically deterring animals from eating the plant material. In common language the terms are used more or less interchangeably, but in botanical terms, thorns are derived from shoots, spines are derived from leaves, and prickles are derived from epidermis tissue.

Agave rosettes are mostly monocarpic, though some species are polycarpic. [5] [ page needed ] During flowering, a tall stem or "mast" ("quiote" in Mexico) grows apically from the center of the rosette and bears a large number of short, tubular flowers and sometimes vegetatively produced bulbils (a form of asexual reproduction). After pollination/fertilization and subsequent fruit development, in monocarpic species, the original rosette dies. However, throughout the lifetime of many Agave species, rhizomatous suckers develop above the roots at the base of the rosette. [5] [ page needed ] These suckers go on to form new plants after the original rosette desiccates and dies. [5] [ page needed ] It is important to note that not all agaves produce suckers throughout their lifetime; some Agave species rarely or never produce suckers, while others may only develop suckers after final maturation with inflorescence. [5] [ page needed ]

Monocarpic plants are those that flower, set seeds and then die. The term was first used by Alphonse de Candolle. Other terms with the same meaning are hapaxanth and semelparous. The antonym is polycarpic, a plant that flowers and sets seeds many times during its lifetime; the antonym of semelparous is iteroparous. Plants which flower en masse (gregariously) before dying are known as plietesials.

Polycarpic plants are those that flower and set seeds many times before dying. A term of identical meaning is iteroparous. Polycarpic plants are able to reproduce multiple times due to at least some portion of its meristems being able to maintain a vegetative state in some fashion so that it may reproduce again. This type of reproduction seems to be best suited for plants who have a fair amount of security in their environment as they do continuously reproduce.

Agaves can be confused with cacti, aloes, or stonecrops, but although these plants all share similar morphological adaptations to arid environments (e.g. succulence), each group belongs to a different plant family and probably experienced convergent evolution. [8] Further, cactus (Cactaceae) and stonecrop (Crassulaceae) lineages are eudicots, while aloes (Asphodelaceae) and agaves (Asparagaceae) are monocots.

Cactus family of mostly succulent plants, adapted to dry environments

A cactus is a member of the plant family Cactaceae, a family comprising about 127 genera with some 1750 known species of the order Caryophyllales. The word "cactus" derives, through Latin, from the Ancient Greek κάκτος, kaktos, a name originally used by Theophrastus for a spiny plant whose identity is not certain. Cacti occur in a wide range of shapes and sizes. Most cacti live in habitats subject to at least some drought. Many live in extremely dry environments, even being found in the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on earth. Cacti show many adaptations to conserve water. Almost all cacti are succulents, meaning they have thickened, fleshy parts adapted to store water. Unlike many other succulents, the stem is the only part of most cacti where this vital process takes place. Most species of cacti have lost true leaves, retaining only spines, which are highly modified leaves. As well as defending against herbivores, spines help prevent water loss by reducing air flow close to the cactus and providing some shade. In the absence of leaves, enlarged stems carry out photosynthesis. Cacti are native to the Americas, ranging from Patagonia in the south to parts of western Canada in the north—except for Rhipsalis baccifera, which also grows in Africa and Sri Lanka.

<i>Aloe</i> genus of plants

Aloe, also written Aloë, is a genus containing over 500 species of flowering succulent plants. The most widely known species is Aloe vera, or "true aloe", so called because it is cultivated as the standard source of so-called "aloe vera" for assorted pharmaceutical purposes. Other species, such as Aloe ferox, also are cultivated or harvested from the wild for similar applications.

Convergent evolution Independent evolution of similar features in species of different lineages which creates analogous structures

Convergent evolution is the independent evolution of similar features in species of different lineages. Convergent evolution creates analogous structures that have similar form or function but were not present in the last common ancestor of those groups. The cladistic term for the same phenomenon is homoplasy. The recurrent evolution of flight is a classic example, as flying insects, birds, pterosaurs, and bats have independently evolved the useful capacity of flight. Functionally similar features that have arisen through convergent evolution are analogous, whereas homologous structures or traits have a common origin but can have dissimilar functions. Bird, bat, and pterosaur wings are analogous structures, but their forelimbs are homologous, sharing an ancestral state despite serving different functions.

Agave species are used as food plants by the larvae of some Lepidoptera (butterfly and moth) species, including Batrachedra striolata , which has been recorded on A. shawii.

Larva juvenile form of distinct animals before metamorphosis

A larva is a distinct juvenile form many animals undergo before metamorphosis into adults. Animals with indirect development such as insects, amphibians, or cnidarians typically have a larval phase of their life cycle.

Lepidoptera Order of insects including moths and butterflies

Lepidoptera is an order of insects that includes butterflies and moths. About 180,000 species of the Lepidoptera are described, in 126 families and 46 superfamilies, 10 per cent of the total described species of living organisms. It is one of the most widespread and widely recognizable insect orders in the world. The Lepidoptera show many variations of the basic body structure that have evolved to gain advantages in lifestyle and distribution. Recent estimates suggest the order may have more species than earlier thought, and is among the four most speciose orders, along with the Hymenoptera, Diptera, and Coleoptera.

Butterfly A group of insects in the order Lepidoptera

Butterflies are insects in the macrolepidopteran clade Rhopalocera from the order Lepidoptera, which also includes moths. Adult butterflies have large, often brightly coloured wings, and conspicuous, fluttering flight. The group comprises the large superfamily Papilionoidea, which contains at least one former group, the skippers, and the most recent analyses suggest it also contains the moth-butterflies. Butterfly fossils date to the Paleocene, which was about 56 million years ago.


The agave root system, consisting of a network of shallow rhizomes, is designed to help the agave efficiently capture moisture from rain, condensation and dew. In addition to growing from seeds, most agaves produce 'pups' – young plants from runners. Agave vilmoriniana (the octopus agave) produces hundreds of pups on its bloom stalk. Agave leaves store the plant's water and are crucial to its continued existence. The coated leaf surface prevents evaporation. The leaves also have sharp, spiked edges. The spikes discourage predators from eating the plant or using it as a source of water and are so tough that ancient peoples used them for sewing needles. The sap is acidic. Some agaves bloom at a height up to 30 ft (9 m) so that they are far out of reach to animals that might attack them. Smaller species, such as Agave lechuguilla , have smaller bloom stalks.


In the APG III system, the genus Agave is placed in the subfamily Agavoideae of the broadly circumscribed family Asparagaceae. [9] Some authors prefer to place it in the segregate family Agavaceae. According to the most recent phylogenetic analyses, the genus Agave is shown to be paraphyletic with the embedded genera Manfreda , Polianthes , and Prochnyanthes . These genera are now combined with Agave to form the group described as Agave sensu lato , which contains about 252 species total. Traditionally, the genus Agave was circumscribed to be composed of about 166 species. [10]

In the Cronquist system and others, Agave was placed in the family Liliaceae, but phylogenetic analyses of DNA sequences later showed it did not belong there. [11] In the APG II system, Agave was placed in the family Agavaceae. When this system was superseded by the APG III system in 2009, the Agavaceae were subsumed into the expanded family Asparagaceae, and Agave was treated as one of 18 genera in the subfamily Agavoideae. [9] In some of the older classifications, Agave was divided into two subgenera, Agave and Littaea, based on the form of the inflorescence. These two subgenera are probably not monophyletic. [11]

Agaves and close relatives have long presented significant difficulties to the biological field of taxonomy. These difficulties could be due to the relatively young evolutionary age of the group (major diversification events of the group most likely occurred 8-10 million years ago), ease of hybridization between species (and even genera), incomplete lineage sorting, and long generation times [12] . Within a species, morphological variations can be considerable, especially in cultivation; a number of named species may actually just be variants of original wild type species that horticulturalists bred to appear unique in cultivation.

Commonly grown species

Some commonly grown species include Agave americana , Agave angustifolia , Agave tequilana , Agave attenuata, Agave parviflora , Agave murpheyi , Agave vilmoriniana , Agave palmeri , Agave parryi and Agave victoriae-reginae .[ citation needed ]

A row of Agaves in bloom in the Karoo region of South Africa. The inflorescence of the plants are clearly visible. Garing boom.jpg
A row of Agaves in bloom in the Karoo region of South Africa. The inflorescence of the plants are clearly visible.

Agave americana

One of the most familiar species is Agave americana, a native of tropical America. Common names include century plant, maguey (in Mexico), or American aloe (not related to the genus Aloe ). The name "century plant" refers to the long time the plant takes to flower. The number of years before flowering occurs depends on the vigor of the individual plant, the richness of the soil, and the climate; during these years the plant is storing in its fleshy leaves the nourishment required for the effort of flowering.

Agave americana, century plant, was introduced into southern Europe about the middle of the 16th century, and is now widely cultivated as an ornamental, as it is in the Americas. In the variegated forms, the leaf has a white or yellow marginal or central stripe. As the leaves unfold from the center of the rosette, the impression of the marginal spines is conspicuous on the still erect younger leaves. The plant is reported being hardy to -9.5 - -6.5c or Zone 8b 15-20f. [13] [14] Being succulents they tend to rot if kept too wet. In areas like America's Pacific North West, they might be hardy for cold winter temperature, but need protection the winter rain. They mature very slowly and die after flowering, but are easily propagated by the offsets from the base of the stem.

Blue A. americana occurs in abundance in the Karoo, and arid highland regions of South Africa. Introduced by the British settlers in 1820, the plant was originally cultivated and used as emergency feed for livestock. [15] Today it is used mainly for the production of syrup and sugar.

Agave attenuata

A. attenuata is a native of central Mexico and is uncommon in its natural habitat. Unlike most species of agave, A. attenuata has a curved flower spike from which it derives one of its numerous common names - the foxtail agave. A. attenuata is also commonly grown as a garden plant. Unlike many agaves, A. attenuata has no teeth or terminal spines, making it an ideal plant for areas adjacent to footpaths. Like all agaves, A. attenuata is a succulent and requires little water or maintenance once established.

Agave tequilana

Agave azul (blue agave) is used in the production of tequila. In 2001, the Mexican Government and European Union agreed upon the classification of tequila and its categories. All 100% blue agave tequila must be made from the Agave tequilana 'Weber's Blue' agave plant, to rigorous specifications and only in certain Mexican states.[ citation needed ]


The hybridized genus × Mangave is created by cross-breeding species of Manfreda and Agave. [16] [17]


Fibers inside a huachuca agave leaf (Agave parryi) AgaveFibers.JPG
Fibers inside a huachuca agave leaf (Agave parryi)
Agave harvesting in Java, 1917 COLLECTIE TROPENMUSEUM Op onderneming Bendoredjo worden bossen agave per spoor vervoert Kediri Oost-Java TMnr 10011411.jpg
Agave harvesting in Java, 1917

The ethnobotany of the agave was described by William H. Prescott in 1843: [18]

But the miracle of nature was the great Mexican aloe, or maguey, whose clustering pyramids of flowers, towering above their dark coronals of leaves, were seen sprinkled over many a broad acre of the table-land. As we have already noticed its bruised leaves afforded a paste from which paper was manufactured, its juice was fermented into an intoxicating beverage, pulque, of which the natives, to this day, are extremely fond; its leaves further supplied an impenetrable thatch for the more humble dwellings; thread, of which coarse stuffs were made, and strong cords, were drawn from its tough and twisted fibers; pins and needles were made from the thorns at the extremity of its leaves; and the root, when properly cooked, was converted into a palatable and nutritious food. The agave, in short, was meat, drink, clothing, and writing materials for the Aztec! Surely, never did Nature enclose in so compact a form so many of the elements of human comfort and civilization!

There are four major parts of the agave that are edible: the flowers, the leaves, the stalks or basal rosettes, and the sap (in Spanish: aguamiel , meaning "honey water"). [19]


Each agave plant will produce several pounds of edible flowers during its final season. The stalks, which are ready during the summer, before the blossom, weigh several pounds each. Roasted, they are sweet and can be chewed to extract the aguamiel, like sugarcane. When dried out, the stalks can be used to make didgeridoos. The leaves may be collected in winter and spring, when the plants are rich in sap, for eating. The leaves of several species also yield fiber: for instance, Agave sisalana , sisal hemp, Agave decipiens , false sisal hemp. Agave Americana is the source of pita fiber, and is used as a fiber plant in Mexico, the West Indies and southern Europe.

The agave, especially Agave murpheyi , was a major food source for the prehistoric indigenous people of the Southwestern United States. The Hohokam of southern Arizona cultivated large areas of agave. [20]

The Navajo similarly found many uses for the agave plant. A beverage is squeezed from the baked fibers, and the heads can be baked or boiled, pounded into flat sheets, sun dried, and stored for future use. The baked, dried heads are also boiled and made into an edible paste, eaten whole, or made into soup. The leaves are eaten boiled, and the young, tender flowering stalks and shoots are roasted and eaten as well. The fibers are used to make rope, the leaves are used to line baking pits, and the sharp pointed leaf tips are used to make basketry awls. [21]

During the development of the inflorescence, sap rushes to the base of the young flower stalk. Agave nectar (also called agave syrup), a sweetener derived from the sap, is used as an alternative to sugar in cooking, and can be added to breakfast cereals as a binding agent. [22] Extracts from agave leaves are under preliminary research for their potential use as food additives. [23]

Beverages and tequila

The sap of A. americana and other species is used in Mexico and Mesoamerica to produce pulque , an alcoholic beverage. The flower shoot is cut out and the sap collected and subsequently fermented. By distillation, a spirit called mezcal is prepared; one of the best-known forms of mezcal is tequila. Agave tequilana or Agave tequilana var. azul is used in the production of tequila. [24] Agave angustifolia is widely used in the production of mescal and pulque, though at least 10 other Agave species are also known to be used for this. [24]


Agave can be used as the raw material for industrial production of fructans as a prebiotic dietary fiber. [23] [25] Resulting from its natural habitat in stressful environments, agave is under preliminary research for its potential use in germplasm conservation and in biotechnology to better anticipate the economic effects of global climate change. [26] It may also have use as a bioethanol or bioenergy feedstock. [27] [28]

Images of species and cultivars


See also

Related Research Articles

Sisal species of plant, sisal

Sisal, with the botanical name Agave sisalana, is a species of Agave native to southern Mexico but widely cultivated and naturalized in many other countries. It yields a stiff fibre used in making various products. The term sisal may refer either to the plant's common name or the fibre, depending on the context. It is sometimes referred to as "sisal hemp", because for centuries hemp was a major source for fibre, and other fibre sources were named after it.

Agavoideae subfamily of plants

Agavoideae is a subfamily of monocot flowering plants in the family Asparagaceae, order Asparagales. It has previously been treated as a separate family, Agavaceae. The group includes many well-known desert and dry zone types such as the agave, yucca, and Joshua tree. There are about 640 species in around 23 genera, widespread in the tropical, subtropical and warm temperate regions of the world.

<i>Agave fourcroydes</i> species of plant

Henequen is an agave, a plant species native to southern Mexico and Guatemala. It is reportedly naturalized in Italy, the Canary Islands, Costa Rica, Cuba, Hispaniola, the Cayman Islands and the Lesser Antilles.

<i>Agave americana</i> species of plant

Agave americana, common names sentry plant, century plant, maguey or American aloe, is a species of flowering plant in the family Asparagaceae, native to Mexico, and the United States in New Mexico, Arizona and Texas. Today, it is cultivated worldwide as an ornamental plant. It has become naturalized in many regions, including the West Indies, parts of South America, the southern Mediterranean Basin, and parts of Africa, India, China, Thailand, and Australia.

<i>Agave tequilana</i> species of plant

Agave tequilana, commonly called blue agave or tequila agave, is an agave plant that is an important economic product of Jalisco, Mexico, due to its role as the base ingredient of tequila, a popular distilled beverage. The high production of sugars named agavins, mostly fructose, in the core of the plant is the main characteristic that makes it suitable for the preparation of alcoholic beverages.

<i>Agave parryi</i> species of plant

Agave parryi, known as Parry's agave or mescal agave, is a flowering plant in the family Asparagaceae. It is a slow-growing succulent perennial native to Arizona, New Mexico, and northern Mexico.

<i>Hesperoyucca whipplei</i> species of plant in the family Asparagaceae

Hesperoyucca whipplei (chaparral yucca, our Lord's candle, Spanish bayonet, Quixote yucca or foothill yucca is a species of flowering plant closely related to, and formerly usually included in, the genus Yucca. It is native to southern California, United States and Baja California, Mexico, where it occurs mainly in chaparral, coastal sage scrub, and oak woodland plant communities at altitudes of 0–2500 m.

Aegiale hesperiaris is a butterfly known as the tequila giant skipper. It is monotypic in the genus Aegiale. Its caterpillar is one of two varieties of edible "maguey worms" that infest maguey and Agave tequilana plants.

<i>Hesperocallis</i> genus of plants

Hesperocallis is a genus of flowering plants that includes a single species, Hesperocallis undulata, known as the desert lily or ajo lily.

<i>Agave mitis</i> species of plant

Agave mitis is a plant species native to the Mexican states of Hidalgo, Tamaulipas and San Luis Potosí, referred to as Agave celsii in many publications.

Agave anomala is a species of Agave in the family Asparagaceae. This species is found on Cuba and also on San Salvador Island in the Bahamas. Several other Agave including the ornamental species, A. americana are present on San Salvador.

Agave phillipsiana is a rare species of flowering plant in the asparagus family known by the common names Grand Canyon century plant and Phillips agave. It is endemic to Arizona in the United States, where it lives only in Grand Canyon National Park.

<i>Agave</i> × <i>arizonica</i> species of plant

Agave × arizonica is a rare plant, endemic to Arizona. It is a hybrid between two species of Agave in the family Asparagaceae, A. chrysantha and A. toumeyana var. bella. It was discovered in the 1960s near a summit of the New River Mountains, near the Maricopa-Yavapai county line north of Phoenix, Arizona.

<i>Agave beauleriana</i> species of plant

Agave beauleriana is an evergreen plant in the family Asparagaceae, subfamily Agavoideae. It is widely cultivated in many places, but has never been reported from the wild. The original reports say that the species is native to Mexico, but a more detailed location was not provided. The species has reportedly become naturalized in the Leeward Islands of the Caribbean. The leaves appear at the base of the plant, its flowers are funnel-shaped and yellow.

Agave delamateri is a species of plant in the agave subfamily, Agavoideae. It is known by the common names Tonto Basin agave and Rick's agave. It is endemic to central Arizona in the United States. It is generally found on gravelly soils in desert scrub and sometimes pinyon-juniper woodland, often near Mogollon or Salado archaeological sites.

<i>Agave mckelveyana</i> species of plant

Agave mckelveyana, common name McKelvey's century plant, is a species endemic to west-central Arizona, at elevations of 800–2,200 m (2,600–7,200 ft).

<i>Agave decipiens</i> species of plant

Agave decipiens, common names False Sisal or Florida agave, is a plant species endemic to coastal Florida though cultivated as an ornamental in other regions. The species is reported naturalized in Spain, India, Pakistan, and South Africa.

Maguey worms, are one of two species of edible caterpillars that infest maguey and Agave tequilana plants.


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